Where and how much we drive, and at what cost, is a question that’s rapidly rising up the political agenda, due to concerns about climate change and toxic air pollution.
Just this week, we’ve seen London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone expand to 18 times its original size, covering 3.8 million people. Meanwhile, as Rishi Sunak is preparing his Comprehensive Spending Review, there are those calling for the Chancellor to come up with solutions to compensate for the fall in petrol and diesel taxes as people increasingly make the switch to electric cars.
To make these sorts of policies successful, it’s important to take into account the views and experiences of the people affected by them. This is why the NatCen Centre for Deliberative Research is exploring low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in England for a project commissioned by the European Climate Foundation.
By talking to nearly 100 people who have lived with LTNs over the past 18 months, we aim to understand if and how LTNs (and/or similar schemes) can be designed in ways that work for communities, and especially marginalised minorities. We hope this will be a constructive contribution to the (sometimes fiery!) public debate on LTNs, bringing a clear focus on solutions and meaningful public engagement.
What is an LTN?
A low traffic neighbourhood (LTN) is a group of residential streets where car traffic is restricted, allowing more space for alternative modes of travel such as cycling and walking. Restrictions may involve bollards or planters at entry points to streets, speed humps or Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras.
A large number of LTNs were introduced in England in 2020, using funding from the Emergency Active Travel Fund. The speed of implementation, to provide more public space in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, meant that schemes were sometimes introduced with limited consultation with residents.
LTNs are a keenly debated issue with some strong perspectives. This presents a good opportunity to use deliberative research methods, bringing together residents from three areas which had undergone trials of LTNs, as well as expert speakers, to explore the issues in in-depth online workshops.
In this blog, we discuss the experiences of moderators and participants who took part in the research.
A moderator’s perspective
Given the range of views on LTNs, we carefully selected individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives to participate in the research. When moderating the workshops, we emphasised the importance of having an open discussion where participants could learn from different perspectives.
At different points during the online workshops, participants were divided into breakout rooms for smaller group discussions which they later summarised in a plenary session. The groups needed to manage differences of opinion and come up with solutions to problems together, with topics including consultation on LTNs, modes of implementation, and balancing the impacts that the introduction of LTNs can have on different groups.
One unifying factor among participants was the desire to tackle air pollution and traffic in residentials areas, as well as climate change. This brought participants together in constructive dialogues which explored different suggestions on how best to resolve these issues.
As a moderator, it was moving to hear participants share their stories and have others – who were complete strangers – empathise with them. Participants would often refer back to each other’s comments, and there was a sense that participants were collaborating with purpose to tackle these local and wider issues.
Out of the 75 participants who provided feedback on the event, the vast majority (83%) said they enjoyed taking part in the deliberative workshop. The deliberative workshops were described by participants as interesting, informative and insightful, and they characterised the experience as enjoyable and eye-opening.
“I would just like to say how much I actually enjoyed it. It was my first time [taking part in a deliberative event] and I was sceptical about it, I thought it could be a bit boring. But I can see how [deliberative events] could open people's eyes to different scenarios like the LTNs.”
Participants were especially grateful for the expert speakers’ involvement in the evidence session and for the contextual information this offered. Learning more about climate change and air pollution and the impacts of LTNs particularly stood out to participants.
“It was an eye-opening experience and I really enjoyed taking part. I learned a lot of new information that I did not know before.”
Splitting into smaller group discussions allowed for more in-depth conversation and provided everyone the opportunity to contribute. Participants said they felt listened to and that their opinions were valued, which is something that many did not feel during the LTN implementation process. Hearing other people’s views on, and experiences of, LTNs was particularly interesting for participants and contributed to some changing their views.
Overall, the deliberative workshops demonstrated that it’s possible to find common ground on a difficult and contested issue, and that it’s possible to generate practical solutions for the successful implementation of LTNs.
So, what are the next steps? We will be publishing the full findings of the research in November, with recommendations for implementing LTNs in ways that are acceptable to all.
This blog is authored by NatCen researchers Kate Belcher and Eliska Holland. Read more about the work of the NatCen Centre for Deliberative Research.